The driverless revolution needs a digital roadmap to get around
The driverless revolution needs a digital roadmap to get around
( Source: gemeinfrei / Unsplash)

Routing of digital mobility Why smart mobility needs a digital roadmap to get around

Author / Editor: Shift Automotive / Jochen Schwab

Are our towns and cities primed and ready to support the driverless revolution? Without digital roadmaps, autonomous vehicles quite literally won’t know where to turn Is archaic infrastructure stalling innovation in the automotive industry? The driverless revolution may be speeding ahead but it won’t get far without the right infrastructure

Here’s the standard checklist for autonomous driving: sensors to see the world around you; artificial intelligence to understand it; connectivity to ‘talk’ to other vehicles and tap into the power of cloud computing; and a new design approach for when drivers become (mainly) passengers. What’s missing, though, are a few much more fundamental issues that need to be addressed first: are our towns and cities primed and ready to support the driverless revolution – whether you find driverless cars - en masse - on highways, cul-de-sacs and avenues around the world.

It may be less glamorous but having the right infrastructure in place is vitally important to ensure a smooth transition to and safe functioning of data-driven, next generation mobility solutions. Yes, integrated transport solutions require EV chargers, digital parking and electric scooter hire schemes – as they have been springing up in cities from Hamburg to Helsinki. Eleven per cent of public parking spaces globally (on-street and off-street) are now allegedly smart; this is expected to increase to 16 per cent by 2023, according to a report from IoT Analytics.

But on a much more basic level, as there simply are no accurate digital maps of any place for autonomous vehicles to follow, how will it know for sure whether a street is one way, that a new housing estate is temporarily blocking drive-through traffic, or how long a vehicle is allowed to park in any given space? After all, the vehicle can’t very well roll down its window and ask a passing pedestrian (or can it?).

Existing traffic management and parking systems the world over are in dire need of modernisation. There’s a lack of cohesion across borders, regions and council jurisdictions, which causes inefficiencies and stalls innovation. The archaic, fragmented and sometimes still paper-based (!) infrastructure that local authorities are currently working with just isn’t ready to support the smart technology of the future. And without access to appropriate data and insight tools that effectively manage urban traffic flows and address transport challenges, local authorities will be struggling to both adequately serve their communities now and pave the way for smarter mobility in the future.

Autonomous vehicles of any kind need to be backed up by a connected system that manages traffic and parking data, to smooth out traffic flows, and tell them where they can and can’t go, and when. Smarter, more integrated systems will not only empower authorities to take control of their infrastructure to improve the lives of residents – transforming people’s experience of finding and paying for parking, for example. For companies offering mobility solutions – whether they are car makers, technology firms or service providers - these systems will be a vital underpinning for intelligent mobility solutions; getting them right will unlock countless exciting new products and services. These systems will also help cities to reach their low or zero emission targets faster and improve their air quality; London, for example, aims to become a zero-carbon city by 2050.

Large-scale infrastructure overhauls like these are expensive. Understandably, towns and cities will be reluctant to invest unless they’re sure the technology is mature and will return significant benefits for residents. Navigation will be one of the most important components of autonomous driving. Whether it’s installing smart sensors along roadsides that track traffic volumes and give driverless cars information about traffic conditions, or the ability to receive data from other self-driving vehicles to improve driving conditions, local authorities need to get moving now if they want to have the right set up in place for the day when autonomous driving reaches its tipping point.

And that time is coming. More than 33 million self-driving vehicles will be sold globally in 2040, up from the 51,000 units forecast for the first year of significant volume in 2021, according to the latest forecast on autonomous vehicle sales from business information provider IHS Markit.

Some cities are well on their way to being ready for autonomous cars. In China, for example, some cities have begun to build highways with dedicated lanes for autonomous cars. While congressional leaders in Washington DC are still debating an infrastructure bill, elected officials at the state and local levels of government have been moving ahead for the past two years. In many US states, collaborative initiatives have been launched to install clean energy projects, initiate smart city technology and build social infrastructure. Most of these projects were based not only on collaboration between the public and private sector, but also depend on private-sector investments. The downside to this approach, however, is that small scale initiatives launched with private sector investment are unlikely to be open source and compatible, which may lead to further problems down the line.

Towns and cities need physical infrastructure to handle the growing numbers of autonomous vehicles set to hit the streets, supported by an IT infrastructure that can easily manage data storage, performance, security, resilience, mobilisation and protection centrally. Governments therefore need a joined-up approach to infrastructure. Only then will they be able to build a fit for purpose network that will serve the public in the age of smart mobility. And they really need to start now.